TIFF City to City Spotlight – Abba T. Makama
In April 2016, The Toronto International Film Festival announced that Lagos, Nigeria was their selection for this year’s City to City program – a showcase for filmmakers living and working in a selected city, regardless of where their films are set. The selections – curated by Artistic Director Cameron Bailey – included films from an area generating “about US$1 billion in box office” and experimenting with “bigger budgets, leading to greater artistic ambition. The new cinema of Lagos is bold, exciting, and ready to take its place on the international stage.”
L to R – Jamal Ibrahim, Samuel Abiola Robinson and Ifeanyi Dike, Jr.
One of the films selected was Green White Green – a sharp and hilarious film that explores social and political views common in Nigeria. With the three main characters from the three major ethnics groups (Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa), this creates the perfect setting to poke fun and critique ethnic/cultural stereotypes, prejudice, and classism.
I sat down with director Abba T. Makama (a SUNY graduate, accomplished painter and producer) just before the premiere of his film and we talked about his artistic influences, dream collaborations and how he considers Samuel L. Jackson extended family.
Abba Makama, director of Green White Green
Lauren: Is this your first festival? How is it going so far?
Abba: It’s not my first festival, but it is my first time at TIFF. It’s awesome. I haven’t really engaged because I’ve been doing interviews and a lot of walking. I’m just taking it all in.
Lauren: There are many who aren’t familiar with Nigerian cinema. Could you describe it in five words?
Abba: It’s a challenge, but archetypal, traditional, crude (in terms of production), exciting and the future.
Lauren: Is the term “Nollywood” considered a pejorative or is it an acceptable description to you?
Abba: I think it’s relative. For me, I try as much as possible to not use it. I prefer “Nigerian cinema,” but we live in a reality of labels, so I accept that reality. There’s no location in Nigeria called “Nollywood.” In 2002, a journalist wrote an article during the boom of the industry when people were just churning out DVDs and VHS tapes left and right. I think that was when it became the third largest market in the world. This journalist called it “Nollywood” and it stuck.
I did a documentary on the film industry two years ago that was broadcast on Al Jazeera and I wanted to call the documentary The History of Nigerian Cinema. They said “Nollywood” would be a better label so it stuck and became Nollywood: Something out of Nothing. Again, it’s relative.
Lauren: Are there any American films or foreign films that have influenced your style or influenced you personally?
Abba: Definitely! (Laughs) America pretty much has its grip on the entire planet. We grew up watching and being influenced by American pop culture. Our parents would go to the US and England, record TV programs and movies on VHS and bring them back home. We’d watch them over and over again. When we were kids, my older brother and I really got into cartoons like Transformers, Voltron and ThunderCats. My dad would buy VHS originals and we had a decent collection until friends started borrowing them and then everything was lost.
Funny enough, my dad was drawn to westerns. I know his best friend was from the Fulani ethnic group and they’re like herdsmen. His friend had a ranch so he considered himself sort of a cowboy. That was their thing. (Laughs) They’d dress up as cowboys – jeans, boots, hats, and the whole thing. He was a huge fan of Sergio Leone films. When I started watching Quentin Tarantino films, I noticed he was big on using those nuances of “Spaghetti Westerns,” particularly the soundtracks. One day I was going through my dad’s cassette collection and he had this tape that had all these songs from different Westerns and half of the Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds soundtrack was on this tape.
Lauren: Is Green White Green autobiographical to some extent?
Abba: Semi-autobiographical, yes. The three main characters are influenced by different stages of my life and different aspects of my personality. It’s not exactly me holding a mirror up to my life, more like the events are loosely inspired by incidents and people I’ve met.
Lauren: It seems like national identity was of paramount importance in this film, but were you also looking to educate people on the differences between tribes, language and class?
Abba: Yes. I did this because when I came to school in Upstate New York, I wasn’t necessarily as intellectually stimulated as they way I am now. I would always get asked the most ignorant questions about where I came from and I was embarrassed about where I came from. It reached a stage where I perfected my American accent and I would just say I was from Brooklyn. (Laughs)
Right now I’m super-confident about where I’m from. I have such pride, I can’t even explain it. It’s about identity. I feel so unique and so different, so diverse. I just wanted to give people a crash course on where I’m from and silence people who have preconceived notions about my home. I also wanted to also show that we’re hip and we make cool stuff. There is life over in Nigeria. Even though it’s a third world country there’s still life there. It’s vibrant; it’s fun.
Lauren: Do you think art has the power to unite? Can it bridge these cultural divides in Nigeria as it’s not exclusively for the upper class?
Abba: Oh, definitely, but I think we have a long way to go. My film might be accessible abroad, but it’s to some extent considered too intellectual for the average person back home. I guess they’ll enjoy it in the long run, but distributors back home who run the cinemas may probably be afraid to touch it because they feel it might not be profitable. Maybe now it’s different because it’s gained so much traction but I’m curious to see.
Many people don’t believe that art has the power to influence, but it does influence me. Art is propaganda and we’ve learned from history that propaganda has the power to engineer societies: Nazi Germany, Maoist China, even in America. They just may not call it propaganda anymore. Sometimes they call it PR.
Lauren: Sometimes we call it mainstream media.
Abba: Exactly. We’re in the propaganda business and we do want it to have some sort of impact. That’s the sole aim of the type of work I do. I try to always find that balance between doing something socially conscious and something that is entertaining. First and foremost, I want to entertain. If someone gets enlightened, that’s an additional bonus for me.
Lauren: Do you think people will see that your film is poking fun, but at the same time suggesting it’s time to examine themselves and make changes?
Abba: Definitely, definitely. There’s a short film I did a few years ago that made fun of the ruling class and how indifferent they were to the struggles of others. I made it during the fuel subsidy protest in 2012 when prices were consistently on the rise. This was the first time the people of all races, ethnicities came together and said, “Fuck this shit, we don’t want this shit anymore!” For a while we actually thought things were going to change and a week after they announced a resolution, everything went to shit again. I wanted to show that people don’t often put their money where their mouth is. They’re all talk and little to no action. I thought people weren’t going to get it, but when I got on social media. I saw that the message was well received.
Lauren: There was a scene in the film where one of the elders wore no pants while working on his masterpiece. “No trousers means no obstructions when writing.” Are there any writing or working rituals you have that help you in the creative process?
Abba: I’m a mad scientist when I work. (Laughs) I usually don’t talk about this because I’m not sure how it comes across. Like, just to battle the anxiety of coming to TIFF, I painted my walls of my office with graffiti. You would think someone was experiencing some kind of stigmata. I was a man possessed, but I knew I had to exorcise this stress. Or, I’ll just get up one day, take off my shoes and go for a walk which can be very strange to some.
Lauren: There’s something to be said about feet touching the ground and being grounded to the Earth.
Abba: Exactly. The connection to the earth is important. My ancestors did this. When I came to Toronto I had a volunteer host that took me around. My sneakers started to hurt so I just took them off and kept on walking downtown. She was…(laughs, makes face) clearly uncomfortable and eventually we stopped at Foot Locker and got another pair of sneakers. I think I was embarrassing her, but I do that literally ground me.
Lauren: Do you feel that there are some stories that need to be told? What’s one story you feel you have to tell during your career if you had unlimited resources available tomorrow?
Abba: I would do a historical piece on the military coups that took place in 1967 and 1976. Funny enough, there’s a film in the festival this year called 76. I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s a love story that takes place during that era. But I want to do a proper period piece – if that counts as a period piece.
Lauren: What’s your top Top 5 wish list of collaborators?
Abba: (Laughs) Why five? Five seems to be—
Lauren: *Holds up 5 fingers*
Abba: (Laughs) Okay, well that makes sense. Let’s see. Someone told me I should start a hashtag – #KanyeNeedsToKnow – because he needs to see my work. Funny enough when I did my art exhibition, I kept on getting comments that “Kanye would love your work. Kanye would love this.” I guess because it was just so different and dark. I’d love to work with him.
I’m a huge Kanye West fan, as well as Spike Jonze. There’s a Parisian techno band called Justice that I would love to have score a film. I’ll say Action Bronson too. he’s a rapper, a chef and has a show on Vice called Fuck, That’s Delicious! I want him to come to Nigeria so he can experience that culinary scene.
I love Samuel L. Jackson. He’s a beast and he reminds me of family. He looks like he’s from my mom’s tribe – Tarok people. I have an uncle who looks kind of like him so any time I see him it’s like I’m looking at my blood. Tarok people, Tarok males are very arrogant and pompous. Most characters he plays are too, so I’m claiming him as family. (Laughs)
For more about Abba and Green White Green, visit Abba’s production company Osiris Film and Entertainment and the film’s Facebook page.
*This piece can also be found here.